May 14, 2009

Friday, 5/15

CHE 5:10
BEQ 4:51
NYT 4:04
LAT 3:40
CS 10:34 (J—paper)
WSJ 8:34

Xan Vongsathorn's New York Times crossword

You don't see a lot of constructors whose names would look terrific in the grid, but newcomer Xan Vongsathorn has that unusual initial X. His debut features a mini-theme:

  • 17A. TEMPORARY TATTOO is a [Fun application].
  • 56A. DISAPPEARING INK is a [Means of secret writing...or a description of a 17-Across].

I believe puzzles with a mini-theme are still termed "themeless" but perhaps they should be called "mini-themed" instead. The rest of the puzzle takes the standard themeless form, with four corners and a middle with lots of white space, some interesting fill, and a smidgen of iffiness. Overall, it felt easier than the usual Friday puzzle—the clock was at 3:59 when I went to click the "Done" button, and I don't break 4:00 on Fridays too often. The highlights as I see 'em, mingled with the tough stuff and the iffies:
  • [Confederate general Early] was named JUBAL, which I think is a hilarious name. Should've named my son Jubal Reynaldo.
  • [Concern for a checker] is a FACT. Did you read John McPhee's article about New Yorker fact checkers? Those folks earn their keep.
  • PREOP is clued with [Before making the cut?]—clever clue.
  • The constructor is about to graduate from Pomona College, and colleges are dope-smoking hotbeds. There are two pot clues: [High, in a way] clues ON POT (which feels like iffy crossword fill to me) and [Pot cover] clues a TEA COZY, which is that padded cover that goes over a teapot. A teapot was neither the first nor second kind of "pot" that came to mind. If the water is ASIMMER, or [Barely boiling], you may pour it into your teapot.
  • [Ann of "Rebel Without a Cause"] is DORAN. I'd heard of Jubal Early, but not Ann Doran.
  • The single most insane answer here is MDCLXVI, or 1666, [The annus in Dryden's "Annus Mirabilis"]. When do you ever have a 7-letter Roman numeral in a crossword? This one also happens to have each Roman numeral once, in descending order.
  • ALTER EGO is clued as [Captain Marvel, to Billy Batson]. "Shazam!" Ah, '70s Saturday morning TV, how I loved thee.
  • [Three-___] PEAT is more fun than a PEAT bog.
  • SIT PAT feels unfamiliar in its wording. The clue is [Be content with where one is]. Do you sit or stand pat? If you're overwhelmingly content, might you lie pat?
  • [Canopus or Polaris] is an F-STAR. Luckily, a FACT checker was more plausible than a PACT or TACT checker, so you needn't bring any astronomy knowledge to the puzzle.
  • ANTI-NUKE is a great answer. [Protesting the pro-testers?] is the clue.
  • LYNXES are [Largish animals with black ear tufts]. Does Andy Rooney have those too?
  • The controversial SALSA DIP splashes into the grid again. That's Spanglish for "sauce dip," is it not? This [Party dishful] is usually just called salsa but constructors keep serving us SALSA DIP.
  • A [Stripped-down story] is boiled down to just the PLOT LINE.
  • Is ALL AT SEA "in the language" or not? It's clued as [Hopelessly confuddled]. Don't check your dictionary for "confuddle"—it's a slangy portmanteau of "confuse" and "befuddle."
  • [Late comedian Mac] is BERNIE Mac. I liked him and was sad to see him go at such a young age.
  • [Stock figure] is a nice, vague clue for a BROKER.
For more on the genesis of this puzzle, see Jim Horne's interview with Vongsathorn at the Wordplay blog.

Updated Friday morning:

Randolph Ross's CrosSynergy puzzle, "School Supplies"—Janie's review

Remember the board game "Go to the Head of the Class"? With my solving time today, clearly that's not where I'm headed, but as the school year winds down, this puzzle does leave me well-equipped for (remedial...) classwork. What's in my backpack? Randolph Ross has made sure I've got these five items:
  • 17A: SPELLBINDER [Enthralling orator, e.g.]
  • 28A: HOLDING PEN [Place for prisoners awaiting trial]
  • 35A: GENETIC MARKER [Known DNA sequence]
  • 44A: WORLD RULER [Summit attendee]
  • 61A: BACHELOR PAD [Apartment for a single guy]
And for the record, all but the last are making their first appearance in major puzzledom. The last is, though, making its CS debut. That's four out of five brand-newbies and that makes for some mighty fresh theme fill.

Why was I so draggy in solving this? For starters, apparently I was over-thinking 1A's [Make up (for)] and didn't enter ATONE until very late in the game. I saw the -AGE of 1D and decided that with the clue [Soothe], the fill had to be MASSAGE... So the entire NW was pretty much bollixed up, TOPPLING last. (TOPPLING, btw, along with RENOVATE and SAME DAY in the NE corner, are all making their first CS appearances.) YIKES for YIPES didn't help much either... Had never heard of coach John Wooden (at 57D) and had to give the area around it some thought, but when I see a 4-letter [Sch.] ending in "A," dollars to donuts it's gonna be UCLA, and that was exactly the case today.

Neat grid-bits include the way the [Justice Dept.'s crack team?] DEA sits atop the PERP or [Cop's collar]. (Those are two terrific clues, too.) Then there's the crossing of LOCA with LOCAL; and the REDHEADS that grace the the grid at 66A and 67A. I especially like the three sixes that run down in the NE corner: IN DEEP, CHERIE and SLAP ON. That feels like an especially lively corner to me.

A few more standout clues: [Splash and dash] for ECLAT, [Ripple tippler] for WINO, [Babe from Hollywood, e.g.] for PIG, [Symbolic kisses] for XES, and [Words set in stones] for EPITAPHS.

I was a bit let down by seeing both WASHER and AWASH in the same puzzle, since A-TEST or APISH could have replaced the latter without wildly skewing the level of the puzzle. I'm sure there's a reason why the duplication occurred (and I suspect it was a deliberate choice), but I'm not sure that it'll ever be shared. (RR: this is your cue to chime in! )

Hmmm. Any references to my hometown today? Well, whaddaya know: birthplace of Parker POSEY? Yup. The "Big 'B'" it is!

Brendan Quigley's blog crossword, the themeless "Word Processing"

Brendan confuses some solvers by giving a variety of titles to his themeless puzzles. How about changing the subtitle to "a themeless crossword," Brendan? This particular puzzle's got 68 words, (1) some terrific fill, (2) some weird stuff (PEASECOD is a [Type of pod]? I have no idea what this means), (3) some traps, and (4) some fresh clues.

Example of category 4 ALGER strays from Alger Hiss and Horatio Alger and is instead clued as [Fanny ___ (purported first wife for Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, Jr.]. AWW can mean ["Is that you as a baby?"]. LEAR is clued as an [Aribert Reimann opera], which I've no familiarity with (not the opera, not the composer—but I can guess at the story line).

I fell into one category 3 trap: a 7-letter [Lager alternative] starting with P? Must be PILSNER. Nope, it's a PALE ALE. Which Brendan was just expressing his fondness for in a previous post, so I should have known. If you're just doing the BEQ puzzles but not reading his blog, you're missing some cues that can help you with his puzzles.

More oddball category 2 answers: Let's see...hmm, NOTER is mildly awkward. That's an [Observer]. That's about it other than that PEASECOD thing. There's also OTARU, the [Hokkaido port], but I've seen that one enough by now that it's become a gimme. SMALL AD is a little clunky, and the [Tiny plug] clue didn't make it go in any more easily. Wait, there's also the unusual [Philosopher Chu ___] HSI, which seldom appears in crosswords.

And saving the best for last, the goodies in category 1: the AIDS QUILT at the bottom was Brendan's seed entry, and who deliberately puts a Q and U in the bottom row? That's where words like SETTEES and REASSESSED normally live. SPINAL TAP and LISA LISA provide the musical vibe. Have some CHIANTI ([It comes in a straw basket]) with your PAD THAI. Peek out the FRENCH DOORS and get serenaded by a cheeseball whose best line begins, "ROSES ARE RED."

The [Ancient Italian city founded by Ascanius], ALBALONGA, makes me wonder if particularly nerdy fans of Jessica Alba say "Alba longa, vita brevis."

Doug Peterson's L.A. Times crossword

Doug's theme tacks on a COM at the beginning of familiar phrases:
  • 20A. [Soothe Geronimo's people?] clues COMFORT APACHE. The answer feels a little stilted to me—wouldn't there be a "the" or a plural "s" if you were talking about soothing those particular people?
  • 28A. [Sherman tank, for one?] might be called a COMBAT-MOBILE. The Batmobile is welcome in any puzzle.
  • 43A. ["If Tarzan's bothering you, speak up!"?] clues COMPLAIN, JANE.
  • 52A. [Speak highly of enclosures] is COMMEND FENCES. This one feels a little flatter than the others. Nobody gets excited about fences, do they? I guess I'll find out on Monday when we have a condo meeting to choose a new fence. Heck, I might even commend a fencing option.

The theme entries are bracketed together in pairs by the longer Down fill—ATOMIC AGE ([Era that began with a blast?]) and a COAL MINE ([Montana resource site] is a weird clue, as the coal mines I've heard of are everywhere but Montana) on one side, and COLERIDGE (["Kubla Khan" poet]) with MS. PACMAN on the other. There are 6's and 7's binding those theme entries together, too. [Either of two notable jumpers] is Evel KNIEVEL or his son, for example, and up top there's a HOT TUB rhyming (halfway) with THE HUB.

For more on this puzzle, see Rex's post at L.A. Crossword Confidential. The blog's especially useful for newer solvers, as we strive to be educational. For example, here's an informative tidbit from Rex: 50D: "Thin Ice" star, 1937 (Henie) - the "ice" part was the giveaway. HENIE is 60% vowels and thus crossword gold. He started doing crosswords much more recently than I did, so he's more attuned to such crosswordese. I've been seeing the HENIE/ice skating combo for 30 years, so sometimes I forget that such things aren't necessarily familiar to people who haven't been doing crosswords long and aren't old enough to have seen Sonja Henie movies. (She had three Olympic gold medals, too.)

Todd McClary's Chronicle of Higher Education crossword, "I After E Except After C"

Todd upends the spelling mnemonic "I before E except after C" by gathering together four two-word phrases in which both words run contrary to the rule:
  • 17A. FOREIGN POLICIES are [State Department matters].
  • 25A. An [Alternate name for the Ivy League] is the ANCIENT EIGHT. I've never heard that one, but I know a little bit about the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
  • 44A. WEIRD SCIENCE is a [1985 John Hughes comedy].
  • 57A. HACIENDA HEIGHTS is a [Los Angeles suburb].
I'm guessing the constructor and editor Patrick Berry noodled around with a lot of possibilities for this theme. Who knew you could find a foursome of phrases that fit this theme and were of proper lengths for a symmetrical crossword? I haven't got all that much to say about the puzzle other than that I love this theme. It combines trivia ("Name an '80s teen comedy that violates the 'I before E except after C' rule twice") with enjoying the craziness of the English language. You'll note that the two vowel digrams can be pronounced in a multitude of ways. EI is a schwa, a long A, sort of an E sound before an R (sorry, I don't know the linguist lingo), and a long I. IE is a long E, schwa, long I, and long E/short E combo. It's a wonder anyone's a good speller, I tell you.

Peter Gordon's Wall Street Journal crossword, "Who Let the Dog Out?"

Wow, I haven't seen a 21x21 puzzle by Peter Gordon since I did his book of the NYT puzzles he constructed from 1993 to 2003. (NYT crossword subscribers can get all those puzzles for free via the NYT but it's nice to have them in book form, especially when the book's from Sterling.)

It felt like it took forever to grasp the theme, but the light dawned when I reached my fourth theme entry—the OBAMA (118A) family's pet dog BO has been "let out" from each theme answer. Here's where the BO's were extracted: 25A boDICE RIPPER; 43A PRO boWLERS' TOUR; 67A boUGHS OF HOLLY; 87A BoXER REBELLION; 109A MADAME BoVARY; 5D PICAbo STREET; 50D BABY boOM; 60D CROSSboW; 74D COLORING boOK. I found there were plenty of "aha" moments to be had among these nine theme entries. Smooth, lively fill—you've got your BRONX ZOO and your arts-and-craftsy GLUE GUNS, SET A DATE, and so on. Rock-solid clues to boot.